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Undefeated teams collide in classic Thunder-Clippers matchup

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Who can rule the Western Conference?

Griffin's flops are useless against unicorns!
What’s going on with OKC-Clippers? The usual.
W. Bennett Berry

The Thunder see their old friends and rivals, the Clippers. Both teams are undefeated heading into the early season meeting. But without the stone cold defense of Serge Ibaka, it’s uncertain whether the Thunder can continue to be the generally superior team. Let’s take a closer look.

The Clippers?

Oh man the Clippers are going to win the title this year. You guys have absolutely no idea. I mean, isn’t it obvious? They’re the only team that hasn’t changed any major personnel in the last billion eons. And out of all the contenders last year, the Clippers are the only ones who seem to have kept their ship intact. (And their mascot is a ship! Get it? Oh ho ho ho.)

But more than that, the Clippers shored up what was an awful supporting cast. In is Marreese Speights from Golden State, ready to stand in mid-range and do hundreds of pick and pops. Speights has had some big games against the Thunder, but he’s really not a major piece most nights. Speights’ score-first style should have an incredible effect on the Clipper bench. The Clips also picked up Brandon Bass, a power version of the scoring of Mo Speights. Bass is a big rebounder, and will be banging for those boards. Bass hasn’t played much over the first three games, though. The last pickup worth mentioning is Raymond Felton, a talented and smart if somewhat troubled point guard. There’s long been rumors about Felton’s ability to fit in with a team and be mature, but Felton has gotten consistent jobs in the NBA regardless. All of these guys should slot in and contribute where previous players couldn’t.

The Thunder?

We just traded Ersan Ilyasova for Jerami Grant. It was an excellent move for the team, because Ilyasova really wasn’t giving us much of anything as a stretch four. Sure Ilyasova can shoot a bit, but we really need someone who’s going to compliment Enes Kanter off the bench. And Ilyasova’s lack of athleticism on defense can really pair badly with Kanter’s terrible defense. So bringing in Jerami Grant and his two blocks a game will be a huge boon to bench defense. And Grant does have a semi-reliable mid-range shot. So I’m expecting Grant to fit in as a nice pick and pop option, as well as post defense help.

Also gone in that trade was a late first rounder, a position that often churns out reliable role players. The Thunder save a ton of cap space though, and Grant will be signed with the super-cheap team option next year. So that does give us a bit of excitement to see the newfound potential for improvement next off-season.

As for how everyone’s doing, Westbrook continues to be the unquestioned leader. One game after nabbing a 50 point triple-double, Westbrook nabbed a 30 point triple-double. More than that, the Thunder looked dominant over the much younger and less experienced Lakers. After struggling to two thrilling finishes against bad teams, it’s a relief that OKC was finally able to put together come dominant stretches and a convincing win.

The keys to success appear to be Kanter, Oladipo, and Adams. All of them clearly have the potential to score over 20 every night. Adams is more efficient than the other two, but will invariably get less possessions. Whether the Thunder turn out dominant appears to depend on which of these guys can be offensively productive. With the addition of Grant, hopefully the Thunder’s defensive teeth will develop a bit more. We’ve seen some amazing steals from OKC’s defense so far, and I’m hoping that can really turn us into a big defense-to-offense unit. Through 3 games, OKC is averaging a whopping 11 steals.

How will tonight’s game go?

I’m having a hard time seeing OKC pulling this one out. Serge Ibaka is a figment of our past, and Ibaka was so useful in stopping Blake Griffin. I don’t know if Jerami Grant will play, but I don’t think even he could put up a serious defense against Griffin. Really, tonight is going to be all about Sabonis getting a trial by fire. And if the rookie can somehow hold the superstar, I’ll be legitimately surprised.

Paul vs. Westbrook is always an amazing battle. Westbrook has the career advantage because he’s just a bit younger and more athletic. But I’d be lying if I said that Paul hasn’t forced Westbrook into some high turnover, poor shooting games. We’ll see if Doc Rivers does any cross-matching of shooting guards on Westbrook. I wouldn’t be surprised to see off-season pickup Alan Anderson possibly get time in that role. But Redick and Crawford won’t likely be effective defenders, and the Clippers haven’t utilized Anderson much as of yet.

Steven Adams should play a large role, stopping the rim runs of DeAndre Jordan. I will say that it is possible that Donovan assigns Adams to Griffin, and keeps Sabonis guarding Jordan. Jordan doesn’t have much back to the basket ability and no shot to speak of. So any power forward that’s stout enough can generally keep Jordan away from the rim. Adams on Griffin is effective in that it keeps Griffin away from the rim. But Adams isn’t quick enough to contend with Griffin’s jump shots, so those will go down at an increased rate. Overall Adams will keep Griffin to reasonable numbers, but I just don’t see Adams shutting Griffin down.

Really, the Clippers are going to be able to shoot the Thunder out of this game when they want to. Everything will be competitive, but then, without warning, the Clippers will just fire up four threes in a row, coupled with a couple dunks from Jordan and Griffin. All of a sudden we’re down 20 and wondering where everything went wrong.

But the Thunder certainly can win this game. If OKC can score efficiently in the paint, limit turnovers, and keep Griffin from having a career night, a win is a possibility. But it’s not likely at this point, as much as I’d like to believe so.

Prediction: Los Angeles Clippers 122, Oklahoma City Thunder 105.

What do you think of tonight’s game? Drop a comment and let us know!

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Injuries: Paul Pierce (Out), Brice Johnson (Out), Cameron Payne (Out)

Time: 9:30 PM Central Daylight Time

Place: The Staples Center, Los Angeles, California

TV: ESPN, FSOK, NBALP